Harry Reid’s Victory Lap

Despite the somber tone with which the Senate majority leader detonated the nuclear option, he’s a rock star for the frustrated Left.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) talks to reporters about the use of the 'nuclear option' at the U.S. Capitol November 21, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Nov. 21, 2013, 12:16 p.m.

It may have been “a sad day in the his­tory of the Sen­ate” for Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, but for the lib­er­al act­iv­ists and law­makers who as­sembled just off the Sen­ate floor Thursday, the mor­tal wound Demo­crats de­livered to the fili­buster was cause for cel­eb­ra­tion.

The whoop­ing and cheer­ing began in­side the Mans­field Room even be­fore Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id ar­rived, and con­tin­ued as he and his fel­low fili­buster-slay­ers strode in tri­umphantly. It was one of two sep­ar­ate rauc­ous stand­ing ova­tions Re­id would re­ceive. “Our her­oes have ar­rived!” an­nounced Paul Begala, the Demo­crat­ic strategist, who served as em­cee for the event — part press con­fer­ence, part vic­tory rally.

“If you listen care­fully, you can hear the sound of grid­lock break­ing and pro­gress com­ing, be­cause of what these men did today on the floor of the United States Sen­ate,” Begala con­tin­ued. “It’s a good day for demo­cracy!”

The ebul­li­ent mood was markedly dif­fer­ent from the somber press con­fer­ence Re­id and oth­er Demo­crat­ic lead­ers de­livered up­stairs just mo­ments earli­er, when Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., echoed Mc­Con­nell in call­ing Thursday “a sad day,” ex­plain­ing that Demo­crats were re­luct­antly forced to in­voke the “nuc­le­ar op­tion” be­cause of the tea party’s in­transigence.

But for lib­er­al act­iv­ists, who have spent the past four years watch­ing their and Pres­id­ent Obama’s agenda get sty­mied at every turn by Re­pub­lic­an fili­busters, the det­on­a­tion was long over­due. “Con­grat­u­la­tions to all the people out there who have been gath­er­ing sig­na­tures and who have been on this for so long — for so so long,” said Sen. Tom Har­kin, who will re­tire next year after spend­ing more than 20 years fight­ing the fili­buster.

Sen. Tom Ud­all, D-N.M., who along with Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., in­jec­ted new life in­to the anti-fili­buster cam­paign in re­cent years, noted that one of his pre­de­cessors, the late Sen. Clin­ton An­der­son of New Mex­ico, star­ted work­ing on fili­buster re­form back in the 1940s.

Ud­all ad­ded that the two greatest “ac­com­plish­ments” in the fili­buster’s his­tory were to block an anti-lynch­ing bill and then the Civil Rights Act. “Any­body who wants to stand with the fili­buster, that’s where you’re stand­ing,” he said. Mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus, who have been agit­at­ing against the fili­buster and build­ing polit­ic­al sup­port in the House, mur­mured in agree­ment as they stood be­hind the po­di­um.

Fili­buster re­form has nev­er had un­an­im­ous sup­port among lib­er­als, some of whom worry about what a fu­ture Re­pub­lic­an ad­min­is­tra­tion might bring, par­tic­u­larly on abor­tion rights. But judging by the flood of glow­ing press re­leases, pro­gress­ives have had enough of the GOP block­ade and see fili­buster re­form as a his­tor­ic­al — and per­haps in­ev­it­able — achieve­ment both for them­selves and for good gov­ern­ment.

“Just think of it: From now on the pres­id­ent, any pres­id­ent — Re­pub­lic­an or Demo­crat — can put to­geth­er the ex­ec­ut­ive branch of gov­ern­ment with a ma­jor­ity vote,” Har­kin said dream­ily. “There were some people that needed to be con­vinced. And we don’t need to go in­to that. But they were con­vinced,” he ad­ded with a chuckle.

Hav­ing ris­en from Cap­it­ol Po­lice of­ficer, to a mem­ber of the House, to the Sen­ate, and then fi­nally ma­jor­ity lead­er, Re­id is a creature of the in­sti­tu­tion and was re­luct­ant to change the rules, of­ten to the frus­tra­tion of his base. Merkley said that when he first men­tioned the is­sue to Re­id, the lead­er covered his ears with his hands as if to say, “I don’t want to hear about it.” A co­ali­tion of groups in­clud­ing Demo­cracy for Amer­ica and CREDO Ac­tion had col­lec­ted al­most 300,000 sig­na­tures push­ing Re­id to act, but he gave them a vic­tory be­fore they even had the chance to de­liv­er them.

Re­id now sees fili­buster re­form as ne­ces­sary to pre­serving the Sen­ate at a time when Con­gress has a 9 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing. He’s apo­lo­gized for his past op­pos­i­tion, and lib­er­als were eager to em­brace him on this is­sue.

Brad Wood­house, the former Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee spokes­man who now runs Amer­ic­ans United for Change, said the rule change ex­ecuted Thursday will go down in his­tory as the “Re­id rule.”

Re­id even took a mo­ment to poke fun at Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., without men­tion­ing him by name. “I know one sen­at­or is in trouble for pla­gi­ar­ism, but I pla­gi­ar­ize Paul all the time,” he said, adding that he would steal Begala’s joke about 41 sen­at­ors walk­ing in­to a bar and shut­ting the place down, but re­pla­cing “bar” with “res­taur­ant,” pre­sum­ably in hon­or of his tee­total­ing.

“There’s the man of steel and then there’s the man with the steel spine, Harry Re­id,” said Har­kin. “Thank you for bring­ing the Sen­ate in­to the 21st cen­tury.”

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